This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Staging the Exodus*

Cecil B. DeMille was not the first person to stage a dramatization of the Passover story.

Though it is impossible to ascertain who deserves that particular honour, we do know of a stage-play based on the story of the Exodus that was composed as early as the second century B.C.E. The author of that play was a Jew named Ezekiel. As was the case with most of the cultural heritage that has survived from the illustrious Greek-speaking Jewish communities, Ezekiel's oeuvre was preserved by pagans and Christians, not by Jewish posterity.

"Ezekiel the Tragedian" entitled his drama the "Exagogé" (the Exodus). Arranged in five acts, it follows the career of Moses from his flight to Midian until after the revelation of Mount Sinai.

Ezekiel artfully blends a precise retelling of the Biblical story with the literary conventions of Hellenistic culture. On the whole, he reflects the convictions of a proud Jewish community that their own sacred history was as worthy a subject for drama as the myths of their Greek and Roman neighbours.

Although the surviving remnants of the Exagogé testify to its faithful reliance on the Scriptural story, there are several apparent departures from the Bible that deserve our attention. Some of these demonstrate the acceptance by Hellenistic Jews of values and ideas that were current among the Greeks and Egyptians.

For example, the play supplies details about Moses' education that are not spelled out in the Torah. Not only was he taught about his Jewish origins going back to Abraham, but according to Ezekiel he also mastered the full range of Egyptian wisdom. This detail is consistent with the opinion that was widely held among the ancients--and by no means limited to patriotic Egyptians--that Egypt was the birthplace of all true wisdom, and that such wisdom equipped Moses ideally for the role of leader of his people.

Some of the most novel details in the Exagogé are those that relate to its geographical setting.

Most of us have been brought up to assume that Midian, to which Moses fled after killing the Egyptian taskmaster, was somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, as was Mount Sinai. However Ezekiel situates all these events on the African mainland, in the Libyan region of Cyrene. This was an idea that had considerable currency among ancient authors. The Jewish historian Demetrius related that the descendants of Abraham's wife Keturah, believed to be the ancestors of Moses' Midianite wife Zipporah, had found their way to Africa. Non-Jewish Hellenistic authors knew of many traditions related to the exploits of the African branch of Abraham's descendants, including military and marital alliances with the mighty Hercules.

In placing this unexpected emphasis on Cyrene as a setting of formative Jewish history, the Hellenistic Jews were emulating the attitudes of their Greek neighbours who maintained that North Africa was the cradle of civilization, and associated it with many episodes in their mythical history, from the journeys of Jason's Argonauts to the labours of Hercules. Indeed, it was believed that the Atlas Mountains housed the primordial paradise of the Greek gods, a theme that may have influenced Ezekiel's idyllic portrayal of the biblical oasis of Elim (Exodus 15:27). It was only fitting that this cherished region should also have been the setting for the central events of Israelite history.

Another Greek mythological motif that Ezekiel incorporated into his drama was the legend of the marvelous Phoenix, the bird whose rebirth out of the North African sands once in a millennium was believed to herald major historical epochs. Appropriately, the Phoenix-sighting is said to have occurred during the Hebrew Exodus, which initiates underscoring its importance as a historical turning point.

Some interesting twists in the dramatization emerge from the playwright's staging of the "burning bush" revelation. Here, the Jewish author found himself at a disadvantage vis à vis his pagan counterparts who could easily have actors play the roles of the various deities. Ezekiel, by contrast, had to represent a dialogue between Moses and an invisible God, an effect which he achieved by having the voice of God speak from behind curtains.

However Ezekiel's problem was not just a technical one. For a philosophically sophisticated Hellenistic Jew it was considered unacceptably crude to conceive of a spiritual God who literally possessed a "voice" in the human sense. Out of similar considerations, the renowned thinker Philo Judaeus of Alexandria reinterpreted many passages in the Bible that appeared to be referring to divine speech as mere metaphors designed to convey a process of intellectual perception.

Philo preferred to minimize God's direct involvement with the created world by applying the Stoic concept of the "Logos," an emanated entity that furnished the rational structure that regulates the physical world. In Philo's interpretations, it was this Logos, not God himself, that was heard or seen by the prophets of the Bible. This usage was adopted by the standard Aramaic translation of the Torah (where the Logos appears as the memra, the word of God) and continued to influence Jewish philosophers in later generations.

And so, while striving to fashion a literary representation of God's appearance to Moses, the tragedian Ezekiel was scrupulous in eschewing all references to the "voice" of God. Instead, he consistently makes reference to the "word of God," namely the divine "Logos," in a manner reminiscent of Philo.

You are probably asking yourselves: How was it possible in those primitive times before DeMille and Spielberg, to act out on a stage the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea? Ezekiel solved this problem by borrowing a trick that had previously been utilized by Aeschylus to dramatize the Battle of Salamis in the Persians. Instead of enacting the miracle directly, Ezekiel introduced the character of a lone Egyptian survivor who reported their calamity, in the most dramatic and graphic terms, to Pharaoh. In the surviving fragments of Ezekiel's scene, the Egyptian survivor gives us meticulous descriptions of the unequal array of forces, mounting gradually to the certainty that Egyptian victory is inevitable. When the tables are finally and suddenly turned in Israel's favour, it comes with overwhelming dramatic impact.

The many allusions in Ezekiel's play to its Cyrenian setting have led some scholars to believe that the author was himself a citizen of that region. If that theory is true, then it would provide a remarkable complement to several pieces of archeological evidence from that region that attest to the existence of a special amphitheatre in Cyrene that was owned and utilized by the local Jewish community.

This invites some tantalizing speculations: Perhaps our synagogues should also give serious consideration to the introduction of theatrical dramatizations of biblical texts, as an alternative to some of our more longwinded preaching.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, April 21 1997, pp. 18-19.
  • Bibliography:
    • Y. Gutman, The Beginnings of Jewish-Hellenistic Literature, Jerusalem 1963.
    • H. Jacobson, The Exagogé of Ezekiel, Cambridge, England, 1983.